The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In China, Western classical music has blossomed big since the Oscar-winning film “From Mao to Mozart”

October 1, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Western classical music has really blossomed big-time in China in the past 35 years.

How and how much?

David Stern, the son of violinist Isaac Stern, returns to China and discusses the major advances made since his father’s trip to China to make the Oscar-winning 1979 movie “From Mao to Mozart.” (You can see an excerpt, of Isaac Stern teaching a young Chinese student, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

chairman-mao-zedong

Mozart old 1782

That blossoming has affected the building of new state-of-the-art concert halls; more concerts with bigger audiences; major competitions; the formation of new chamber music, operatic and orchestral ensembles; and of course superior education and training for individual performers.

from-mao-to-mozart-cover

isaac-stern-in-china

David Stern gives a blogger a detailed tour of the astonishing progress made after culture wars waged by Mao Zedong and since his father’s pioneering experience in post-Cultural Revolution China in the following story:

http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20169/19738/


Classical music: Two concerts of great music by Bach and Schubert are on tap for Saturday afternoon and Saturday night

March 17, 2016
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ALERT: Although it is listed on the Events Calendar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, there is NO concert TONIGHT by UW Symphony Strings.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear wants to draw your attention to two smaller but very worthwhile concerts this Saturday.

GRACE PRESENTS

This Saturday afternoon, from noon to 1 p.m., the Grace Presents concert series offer harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson in a FREE lecture-performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.

The FREE concert takes place at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square.

grace episcopal church ext

MBM Grace altar

Writes Stephenson who is the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians: “In the lecture, entitled Odyssey of the Soul, I’ll discuss the large-scale structure of the WTC – how it tells a story from the beginning of beginnings in C major out to the final frontier (and edge of tonality itself) in B minor.

“I’ll also talk about and demonstrate how 18th-century Well Temperament is made and how Bach (below) integrates the variety of its sound colors with the expressive message of each piece that I’ll be playing.”

Bach1

The program includes: Prelude and Fugue in C major; Prelude and Fugue in C minor; Prelude in C-sharp major; Prelude and Fugue in E-flat/D-sharp minor; Prelude and Fugue in F major; and Prelude and Fugue in B minor.

The harpsichord that Stephenson (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer) will play was made in Madison in 1999 by Norman Sheppard (sheppardkeyboards.com). It is modeled on a 4-octave Flemish instrument of 1669 by Couchet.

Trevor Stephenson at harpsicord CR Kent Sweitzer

MOSAIC CHAMBER PLAYERS

The Mosaic Chamber Players will give an all-Schubert program this Saturday night, March 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Meeting House of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison. The concert will conclude the group’s 2015-16 season.

The Mosaic Chamber Players will be performing two of Schubert’s late works: the Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929 (you can hear the haunting and lovely slow movement played by violist Isaac Stern, cellist Leonard Rose and pianist Eugene Istomin in a YouTube video at the bottom); and the rarely heard Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C Major, D. 934.

There will be a reception following the program.

Tickets are $15, $10 for seniors, and $5 for students. Only check or cash will be accepted.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, from left) is made up of pianist and founder Jess Salek; violinist Laura Burns (below middle); cellist Michael Allen; and violinist Wes Luke. The various members play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra,the Rhapsodie String Quartet; the Ancora String Quartet; the Willy Street Chamber Players;  the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Youth Choirs and other local ensembles.

Mosaic Chamber Players 2016. Jess Salek piano. Laura Burns violn, Michael Allen cello. Wes Luke violin

The chamber music group has been praised as “among the finest purveyors of quality chamber music in Madison” by critic John W. Barker on The Well-Tempered Ear blog.


Classical music: Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz explains Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade,” which she will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in concerts that also feature Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

May 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear supposes that Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and orchestra  qualifies as program music since it aims to translate Plato’s famous dialogue about love — “Symposium” — into music. (At the bottom, is a YouTube video of Joshua Bell performing the work with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Alan Gilbert in 2013.)

This much is sure. The 1954 work by Bernstein — to be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) — is part of what makes this weekend’s one of the most interesting programs, maybe THE most interesting, of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

The combination of Romantic and post-WW II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is beloved around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, also known as the “Choral” and Ode to Joy” symphony.

That was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein himself famously conducted in Germany to celebrate to fall of the Berlin Wall. So, what better offering is there to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein?

(John DeMain talked about the Beethoven symphony in a Q&A here earlier this week. Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/classical-music-maestro-john-demain-talks-about-the-challenges-and-rewards-of-beethovens-ninth-the-choral-or-ode-to-joy-sympho/ )

Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?

The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor, who heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore; contralto Gwendolyn Brown; tenor Eric Barry; and bass Morris Robinson.

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/beethoven

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” with The Ear:

Naha Greenholtz profile

How would you compare Leonard Bernstein’s work to the great historical violin concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius? What about to modern and contemporary violin concertos by, say, Samuel Barber and Philip Glass, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich? Are there any you would draw parallels or contrasts to?

The five-movement format in Bernstein’s “Serenade” differentiates it substantially from some of the 18th and 19th century classics. While there’s no literal program, there is the suggestion of a basic narrative in Bernstein’s re-imagination of Plato’s communal dialogue. This element alone connects the work more closely to the late 19th and 20th century sub-genre of “program music.” (Below is a portrait of Leonard Bernstein composing at the piano in 1955, around the time of the “Serenade.”)

In its familiar tonal language — combing modal and traditional harmonic elements — it has some resemblance to the Barber concerto. I don’t think middle-of-the-century American composers like Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein were consciously adhering to style parameters.

That said, there is a distinctive “American-ness” to their works.  Much the same way music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev has a “Russian” sound, without necessarily being nationalistic.  It’s subtler than that.  It is more like these composers shared some common aesthetic DNA due to their national and cultural origins.

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Where do you place it among Bernstein’s body of works? Is he generally underappreciated as a composer compared to his work as a conductor and his music for the Broadway theater?

To the latter question, this is certainly true.  He was such a charismatic public figure in music, especially in his work as an educator, conductor and composer of popular music. In light of this, I think his remarkable contributions to “art” music are easily overlooked.

In the Serenade he manages to blend many stylistic elements.  I hear the Devil’s Dance from Igor Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat” and, in the fourth movement, glimpses of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  The instrumentation is a nod to Bela Bartok in his “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste” and the tonal language shows Paul Hindemith’s influence.

But despite all of that, Bernstein’s unique language is apparent within the first five seconds of the piece when the rising augmented 4th resolves up a half step.  That’s what is so remarkable about Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell) — he manages to blend disparate elements of other great artists without losing his own intrinsic style.

Leonard Bernstein CR Jack Mitchell

How does Bernstein express the idea of Platonic dialogue?

Each of the movements is loosely based on the themes of the seven speakers in the work by Plato (below is an ancient sculptural depiction of the philosopher). The concerto begins with the soloist alone in a rhetorical statement and the piece unfolds as each orator presents his perspective on the topic of love. By the end of the fifth movement, drinking seems to have taken over the gathering, leading to a thrilling depiction of a boisterous dinner party.

Plato

How is the idea of love as a carnal and spiritual subject that the guests discuss get expressed?

On describing the duality of love, as a force that cuts both ways, Bernstein is explicit. For example in the third movement Erixymathus, he uses the soloist and orchestra as warring factions. The orchestra explodes with a three-note jab. Then the soloist introduces a quasi-tone row that’s passed back and forth with contrasting intensity. Further into the movement, he piles these themes on top of each other in a frenetic fugue that expresses the mystery and ecstasy of love.

In contrast, the next movement Agathon features the same three-note motive that opened the previous movement, but stretched to 10 times its initial length, utterly transforming it into a spiritual and intimate aria. Bernstein does this all over the piece, taking material from previous movements and showing them in a new light. (Below is a fresco depiction of the Symposium.)

Fresco of Symposium USE

What do you think of the work itself and how its fits with Beethoven’s Ninth? Have you played it before or is it new to you?

Until last year I’d only known the Serenade by recording, so I was thrilled when John suggested we perform it here with the MSO.

It’s strangely neglected in the solo violin repertoire. Maybe that is because of the unconventional five-movement format, or that the title “after Plato’s Symposium”   is somehow intimidating or off-putting.

It’s clearly one of Bernstein’s great orchestral works and is a firework of a showpiece for the violin. As far as pairing with Beethoven’s Ninth, the themes of brotherhood and platonic love feature prominently in both works.

How challenging is it to play and what are the challenges both technically and interpretively? What would you like the audience to pay special attention to?

I find all music challenging. Mozart is simpler in terms of notes and patterns than, say, Shostakovich or Bernstein, but in its own way it is just as hard to play and requires just as much diligent work to pull off.

The Bernstein is full of musical challenges and requires lots of imagination and characterization to communicate the narrative of Plato’s dialogue.

That being said, it’s a major 20th-century solo work so it’s also chock full of technical hurdles. Isaac Stern (below, in 1977) – for whom this piece was written — has left us fingering and bowing suggestions, so I know the thorny passages are at least theoretically possible!

Isaac Stern in 1979

In any event, I’m really looking forward to these performances and think these will be fantastic concerts for anyone who loves great music.

 


Classical music: Are super-high concert fees morally right or wrong? Do they contribute to the wealth gap and lack of young audiences? What can music consumers do?

October 24, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Are artist concert fees — like those charged by tenor Placido Domingo (below top), soprano Renee Fleming (below middle) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (below bottom) —  too high these days and too unaffordable for most American concert-goers?

FRENI

reneefleming

Itzhak Perlman close

What would Janet say?

Maybe that refrain could become the economic equivalent of What Would Jesus Say?

I am speaking of Janet Yellen (below), the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve who last week made headlines when she spoke out publicly against the widening wealth gap as being contrary to America’s historic democratic ideals.

Key Speakers At Seminars At The IMF & World Bank Annual Meetings

But let’s localize the issue.

By all accounts superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with pianist Kathryn Stott, turned in a terrific performance — his seventh — at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Saturday night.

The Ear didn’t go, but here is a rave review from the student newspaper The Badger Herald, which agrees with the word-of-mouth reviews I have heard:

http://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2014/10/20/yo-yo-ma-and-kathryn-scott-transcend-classical-music-norms-at-shannon-hall/#.VEfBQYeENUQ

yo-yo ma and kathryn stott

And for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy tickets, the Wisconsin Union Theater even webcast the concert live and for free.

Still, with seats that sold for well over $100, The Ear got to wondering: Are really high artist fees morally right or wrong?

We all hear about the widening wealth gap, and especially about the astronomical pay given to CEOs versus their workers as compared to the same ratio several decades ago.

Well, what about well-known and in-demand concert artists?

If The Ear heard correctly, Yo-Yo Ma’s fee for that one-night performance was either $90,000 or $95,000 -– or about $42,500 or $45,000 an hour.

Can Yo-Yo Ma demand and get that extravagant fee in the so-called “free market” society with its corporate welfare and tax loopholes for the wealthy? Of course, he can — and he does. That is why he sold out the Wisconsin Union Theater.

But should he?

It makes one wonder.

Is Yo-Yo Ma really that much better as a cellist and musician -– and not just as a celebrity — than many other cellists, including MacArthur “genius grant” winner Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Joshua Roman and others? (You can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of a movement from a solo cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach in a  YouTube video — with over 11 million hits — at the bottom and decide if it is that much better than other cellists play it.)

Now I don’t mean to pick just on Yo-Yo Ma. I have gone to a half-dozen of his other performances here and I have met him and talked with him. He is without doubt a great musician, a fine human being and an exemplary humanitarian.

The problem that I am talking about transcends any single performer and applies to the whole profession.

Maybe at least part of the problem of attracting young audiences to classical music concerts can be placed right in the laps of the performing artists themselves.

When The Ear was young, he got to hear all sorts of great musical artists—including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and others for quite affordable prices. Not that those artists didn’t live well -– but I doubt that they were paid the equivalent of $45,000 an hour.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Maybe it is time for economic populism in the performing arts.

Fees like that exclude a lot of families from participating. Some fans might find it better and cheaper to hear a CD or download than go to a live concert.

Too many performing artists – opera stars come immediately to mind as a class — seem to have taken the same path toward justifying greed as movie stars, sports figures, rock stars and CEO’s who make out like bandits.

In short, can it be that classical musicians are helping to kill off classical music?

Smaller theaters like the Wisconsin Union Theater and even the Overture Center simply cannot book such well-known artists without charging a ridiculous amount of money for a seat – and at a time when many people of all ages just can’t afford it. It just adds to the Wealth Gap and the One Percent problem.

SO THE EAR WOULD LIKE TO ASK CONCERT ARTISTS: PLEASE ADJUST YOUR CONCERT FEES TO HELP SUSTAIN THE FUTURE OF YOUR ART.

Well, these are just some brain droppings.

The Ear wonders what you think of stratospheric artist fees?

Do they contribute to the wealth gap?

Do they hurt the popularity of the art form, especially younger generations?

Are they contributing to the decline of cultural literacy?

In short, are such high artist fees morally right or wrong?

And if wrong, what can we arts consumers do about it? Boycott certain artists until they become more reasonable in their fees?

Ask artist and management agencies to adjust the fees to make them more affordable?

Go to alternative concerts that are perfectly acceptable without star power and cost less or, like those at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, free?

Tell us what you think in a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: The Galena String Quartet reunites for a FREE chamber music concert of Beethoven, Brahms and Dohnanyi this coming Monday night on the UW-Madison campus.

September 13, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

A friend, violinist Kangwon Kim, who plays with the Madison Bach Musicians and the Madison Early Music Festival as well as for other groups and events, writes:

“Dear Jake,

I am having a reunion concert with the quartet members from 13-14 years ago (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), who made up the Galena Quartet in 2001. Its members (from the left) included violist Allyson Fleck, violinist Allison Ostrander (Jones), cellist Karl Knapp and violinist Kangwon Kim.

Galena Quartet 2001 CR Katrin Talbot

The FREE concert is this coming Monday night, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall on the campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The program includes string trios by Ludwig van Beethoven and Ernö von Dohnányi as well as the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, by Johannes Brahms with guest pianist SeungWha Baek (below, in a performance at Northern Illinois University). You can hear the appealing Hungarian Gypsy Rondo finale from the Brahms Piano Quartet at the bottom in a popular YouTube performance with violinist Isaac Stern, violist Jaime Laredo, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax.


SeungWha Beck at NIU

Everything in the program, plus background information about the quartet and the players, is on the following website.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music | Galena Quartet Alumni Reunion Concert

The Galena String Quartet was formed in the Fall of 2001 as the graduate string quartet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Besides performing as the resident quartet for the “Up Close and Musical” program through the Madison Symphony and visiting numerous elementary schools in the Madison area, the quartet performed at the Governor’s mansion, Stoughton Opera House, Fredric March Play Circle at the Memorial Union, and the Colony House in Mountain Lake, Florida. It was also a semi-finalist at the Fischoff chamber music competition.

The members are thrilled to perform this “reunion” concert after pursuing their separate musical careers during the past 10 years, and are grateful to the pianist SeungWha Baek for joining them for this concert. Below are violinist Allyson Fleck (below top) and cellist Karl Knapp (middle) and Kangwon Kim (bottom).

Allyson Fleck

karl knapp

Kangwon Kim

If you could include the announcement sometime in your blog, I would be grateful!!

 

 

 

 


Classical music: The start of the new concert season everywhere is a good time to learn about behind-the-scenes details at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

September 2, 2012
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today, Sunday, will see the end of the 2011-12 concert season with an 4 p.m. afternoon performance of Bach, Mozart and John Harbison at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s final performance. (Seating in the refurbished barn – shown below — has limited availability as of this writing. Check at www.tokencreekfestival.org for an update.

Then on Monday, the 36th annual FREE Labor Day concert by the Karp Family (below) will take place at 7:30 p.m. on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and officially launch the 2012-13 concert season. The program includes Handel, Beethoven, John Harbison and Mendelssohn with a reading from Shakespeare.

Going from one season into another also seems like a very good and appropriate time to reflect on the most famous concert hall in the world – Carnegie Hall (a view from the stage of the main Isaac Stern auditorium is below) in New York City – and how you get there in terms of logistics, rental costs as well as how the iconic hall operates behind-the-scenes.

Here is a story done about Carnegie Hall (the exterior is below) for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog on NPR that The Ear found highly informative and very enjoyable. Maybe you will too:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/07/31/157671080/how-do-you-get-to-carnegie-hall-no-seriously

Cheers to another successful new season!


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